Salem witchcraft crisis grew from fear

September 08, 2002|By Victoria R. Sirota | By Victoria R. Sirota,Special to the Sun

In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, by Mary Beth Norton. Knopf. 432 pages. $30.

Contemporary American culture has sanitized and popularized witchcraft. Newspaper horoscopes, Harry Potter and the commercialization of Halloween have turned evil into a commodity. Salem, Mass., has become a theme park.

It has been more than 300 years since the Salem witch trials in which 19 people were hanged, one was pressed to death and legal action was taken against more than a hundred others. We no longer fear being brought up on charges for seeking to have our fortunes told, possessing herbal potions or books about witchcraft, calling a curse upon our neighbor or being unable to recite the Lord's Prayer accurately. It is difficult to communicate the full horror of what happened in such a dismal time in our country's history, but Mary Beth Norton does a superb job in her carefully researched book.

One of Norton's original points is the close connection between key figures of this grisly drama and the Northeastern frontier. She points out that if the Second Indian War (1688-1699) had "somehow been avoided, the Essex County witchcraft crisis of 1692 would not have occurred." A "climate of fear" existed as a result of repeated and debilitating Indian attacks in southern Maine. The inhabitants had not kept the treaties, especially Indian land claims, and had dealt poorly with the Wabanakis on a number of significant occasions.

Essex County became a fall-back position for those who had previously lived in Maine. Haunted by memories of recent horrors, including sneak attacks, scalpings, beheadings, and the loss of relatives, livestock and property, these frontier refugees probably suffered from what we would term post-traumatic stress disorder.

The trials became a public spectacle. Gossip fueled the procedures. Those accused were interrogated in the presence of the afflicted and the entire community. The magistrates assumed guilt and allowed accusations of spectral torments and other spurious evidence. At first "witches" fit the more usual category of "quarrelsome older women" who were accused of "practicing maleficium." But soon the spectrum was broadened and included men, even the minister George Burroughs who, as unordained clergy, was not allowed to administer the sacrament in the visible world, but could lead a devil's sacrament in the invisible.

A surprising aspect of the Salem trials is the power given to the accusers, mostly young women ages 11 to 20. The courts not only listened to their accusations, but also took seriously their fits and torments. They became focal points of attention. This shift in the hierarchy occurred only because adult men chose to legitimize their claims.

Norton's brilliant thesis explains that whereas the men had been unsuccessful in protecting their loved from Indian attack, in court they could at least protect them from invisible evil. Viewing the Indians as devil worshippers and shamans as witches, the Puritan New Englanders easily saw a conspiracy between Satan and the Watanabis. The presence of witches in their midst became proof of this simplified discourse and removed the officials from blame. The result was that innocent people were killed.

What stopped the madness? Among other things, threat of a L1,000 lawsuit for defamation of character and the theological argument that if the devil is the father of lies, then diabolical visions cannot be trusted.

Although In the Devil's Snare is not a fast read, Norton's dense and meticulous historical account is well worth plowing through. Her conclusions are ground-breaking. Norton has given us a new textbook for the Salem witch trials, and a sober reminder of the dangers of demonizing our enemies.

The Rev. Victoria R. Sirota, national chaplain of the American Guild of Organists, is currently vicar of the Church of the Holy Nativity (Episcopal) in Baltimore. She recently received the 2002 Ecumenical Service Award from the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council and the Newington-Cropsey Foundation Fourth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts.

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